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How Do We Know about Early China?

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Study of the distant past always begins with critical examination of sources. In the present case we might ask, “How do we know about early China?” We are speaking, after all, of a time removed from our own by two or more millennia. The sources upon which we base such knowledge are simply traces of the past, and these traces are largely of two types: written texts and physical objects.1 While physical objects should never be overlooked and give material reality to the written word, texts are ultimately of greater value. Jean Bottéro’s comment about the ancient Mesopotamian world can in general be applied to China as well: The only data that come from the past and that can respond directly to all our questions are documents—texts. They are exact, detailed, precise, and most often unquestionable . . . . Documents therefore comprise the surest, the most complete, the most indispensable sources for our rediscovery of the past.2


1. It is tempting to say “strictly limited” rather than “largely limited,” but we should keep Collingwood’s famous statement in mind: “. . . everything in the world is potential evidence for any subject whatever” (The Idea of History, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946], 280). Along this same line, Lucien Febvre has said, “History is made with documents, to be sure—when there are some. But it can be made, it should be made, from all that the historian can permit himself to utilize. Therefore, from words. From signs. From landscapes and from tiles. From the forms of fields and from weeds. From eclipses of the moon and from the collars of draft animals. From the expertise of geologists on rocks and from the analysis of swords in metal by chemists” (My own translation from Combats pour l’histoire [Paris: Agora, 1953], 428).

2. Jean Bottéro, Clarisse Herrenschmidt, and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece, translated by Teresa Lavendar Fagan (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).